Nothing is ever quite as bad as it seems. After a transfer window that had been labeled by many fans and nearly every pundit as a total failure due to the messy way in which it ended, Arsenal needed a win on Saturday as they welcomed Bournemouth to the Emirates Stadium. Led by manager Eddie Howe, the south coast club has struggled this season, their third straight in the Premier League, failing to register a win in four tries after suffering a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Gunners. Arsene Wenger and his team will look to carry momentum into their first Europa League match of the season on Thursday as they face Cologne.
In stark contrast to the match against Liverpool at Anfield 2 weeks ago, Arsenal never looked to relinquish their hold on the balance of play. Bournemouth were every bit as passive as the Gunners were then, visibly allowing the home team to grow into the match and regain their shaky confidence. The first goal, a Danny Welbeck header in the 6th minute, came off of a beautiful cross at the end of a charging run from new boy Sead Kolasinac, and set the Gunners off on the right foot. By the time Alexandre Lacazette buried Arsenal’s second, a technician’s strike that looked so easy but was anything but, the match looked all but decided. Bournemouth could not match the Gunners’ energy and were a half step late to seemingly every ball. Welbeck’s second goal after halftime came off of a tight angle, rolling beyond the outstretched glove of keeper Asmir Begovic into the corner to seal the scoring at 3-0. It was a much needed win for the Gunners, who now sit in 11th position in the league table after 4 games.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest takeaways from the match that was:
Striking a Balance
Let’s be clear about one thing: there are very few clubs in the world that would actually improve by letting a talent of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s calibre go to a direct rival, but the early indication from his £40 million move to Liverpool is that the move has brought balance to the Arsenal starting XI. After so much end of season success in the run up to winning the FA Cup, most fans could be forgiven for believing that Hector Bellerin on the right and the Ox on the left worked well for the club after switching to a 3 at the back system with wingback roles. It was therefore bemusing to many to see Bellerin and Oxlade-Chamberlain switch sides for the first time against Stoke City and again at Anfield, and the results were shocking. At the time, it was perhaps not clear to some why the switch was made, but after completing his move away from the club, it became obvious that the move was in the interest of placating the young midfielder to entice him to stay.
Despite the head scratching move to make the switch, the reason why it was never going to work long term is simple: it put the team woefully out of balance, making them far too attack minded in the process. Against Liverpool, both Bellerin and Oxlade-Chamberlain occupied positions much further up the pitch than most defenders would, and Bellerin actually shaded more toward the midfield to attempt to quell Liverpool’s numerical advantage in the centre of the park. As a result, the backline was pulled asymmetrically toward the left, leaving gaps for Liverpool to burst through. With Oxlade-Chamberlain in the XI, and both he and Bellerin playing high up the pitch, it left just 3 defenders to deal with the potent Liverpool attack. Given the overly aggressive attacking mindset, it left the Gunners exposed in the same way that had caused them to switch formations last season in the first place. With Kolasinac at wing back, the balance is much better across the team, and his and Bellerin’s positioning is much more like that of typical wingbacks.
Much like with the wingbacks, Arsenal had success at the end of last season using their 2 man midfield in a non-traditional way, leading them to continue the experiment this season, to mixed results. Unlike Chelsea, which likes its midfield pairing to operate together as a unit on roughly the same horizontal plane, Arsenal like to add an element of verticality to the midfield with Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman’s reputation for tireless, and at times even reckless, running is well founded, and he caused defenders fits last season in his new role, constantly bombing forward to play almost as a support striker. With the forwards occupying the defence, Ramsey could use his knack for arriving in the box at the right moment to create chances for the Gunners.
This season, Ramsey has assumed the same role, but without much of the success that came with it last season. Sloppy build up and poorly timed turnovers have left the Gunners badly exposed in the midfield at times this season, with Granit Xhaka left to cover the entire area himself when defending counter attacks and Ramsey was nowhere to be found. Against Bournemouth, Ramsey’s positioning was much more traditional (is there a pattern forming here?). Playing in much closer proximity to Xhaka and under control on defence, Ramsey made himself far more useful in all areas of the pitch, not just when the team is bombing forward in possession. Added to a visibly leaner Granit Xhaka this week, the results were much more on par than with what should be expected of two players with such quality.
An Unexpected Position Battle?
Well no, not really, but Danny Welbeck is certainly giving Arsene Wenger pause when making his team selection. Likely favoured for his ability to close down in the high press and his unselfish style, Welbeck played a gem of a match on Saturday to reward Arsene Wenger’s decision to start him over Alexis Sanchez. Welbeck’s physical gifts and attitude have never been questioned, but injuries and inconsistent finishing have plagued him his entire career. Though Welbeck has scored some wonder goals recently, including a beautiful chip last season, too often he goes missing for several matches, offering little to his team in front of goal. If he is now finally starting to iron out some of the flaws in his game, he could actually get a look in some matches that require more pace and physicality, even with Alexis back at 100%.
Alexis Sanchez, on the other hand, has had himself a whirlwind couple of weeks. After failing in his bid to move to Manchester City, Alexis jetted off for South America to join Chile for their World Cup Qualifying bid. If the transfer window was frustrating for the diminutive Chilean, it was nothing compared to the consecutive losses he faced with his country, and the unusual reaction that followed. For what seems like the first time ever, Sanchez was roundly criticized by his country, with many finding the Arsenal man to be overweight and lacking focus. Fans have gone as far as to blame his new romance for his performances.
If he thought returning to Arsenal would net him an improved reception, he was only partially correct. Arsenal fans, normally so enamored with Alexis that offers to buy each of his two dogs, Atom and Humber, their own houses in the Cotswolds are more likely than jeers, gave their star man a lukewarm reception. Best player or not, no fanbase is going to take kindly to one publicly angling for a move to a rival, and Gooners were no different. Wenger has already backed Sanchez to regain the love and support of the fans, but until then there are likely more than a few fans that would just as soon see the less selfish Welbeck in that role. Ultimately, expect Sanchez to regain his guaranteed place in the side, but having what is proving to be a capable deputy certainly cannot hurt matters.
Ozil’s New Struggle
One does not even have to be a fan of Arsenal to know what an unhappy Mesut Ozil looks like: slumped shoulders, anguished facial expressions, languid stride and the look of a man for whom football isn’t even in the top 10 of things on his mind. Fans in the past have almost been able to bank on a stretch of the season in which their classy playmaker simply disappears for whole matches at a time.
This season has been different. Perhaps humbled this summer by all of the attention lavished on his teammate and fellow expiring contract Alexis Sanchez while his name failed to make it to the lips of most pundits, Ozil’s effort and workrate this season have been much improved so far. Despite not explicitly impacting the game with goals and assists, Ozil has been more responsible defensively than ever before and heavily involved in much of Arsenal’s possession in the final third. He is covering more distance than ever in an Arsenal shirt, and for the most part has contributed little to the drama surrounding the club to open the year.
Sure, there are still fans who value their own opinions more than facts that will point to Ozil and say he should be doing more, but of his effort stays at the same level it is now, those results will come. At 28 years old, it would be unrealistic to expect Ozil to have totally changed his mentality, and the nature of his style of play means that his performance will fluctuate based on the way the team around him plays, but the signs are good. Could Ozil be trying to show the fans and the club that he wants to stay? Or, as it was with Oxlade-Chamberlain, is this new level of determination and activity merely an audition for other teams to come and rescue him from his plight? We may never know what is going on behind those heavily lidded eyes, but if he keeps his attitude positive and the goals start coming, Ozil could quickly earn himself the sort of adulation that was reserved for Alexis Sanchez last season.
Clean Sheet Momentum
For the first time this season, Arsenal were finally able to keep a clean sheet for 90 minutes. As was mentioned in the match broadcast, Arsenal have conceded an average of ~1.5 goals per game, a number that is not good enough to win any league. Despite a fair few of those goals happening last winter, leading the formation to shift to a 3-4-2-1, Arsenal have once again picked up some of their bad habits again this season. Having allowed 8 goals through their first 4 matches (7 of which came in just 2 matches, against Leicester and Liverpool), the Gunners have much work to do, but the inclusion of Sead Kolasinac at left wing back and the decision to play 3 veteran defenders at the back has seen the trend turn positive after the first match.
The decision to switch Laurent Koscielny to the right of the backline and Shkodran Mustafi to the middle has also given Arsenal increased protection in the channels, with Koscielny’s pace a real asset in neutralizing those threats. Nacho Monreal, completing the trio on the left side, has really grown into his position and has probably been the team’s most consistent performer thus far. Add in the much more conservative positioning of the wingbacks and improved midfield play shielding the back line, and the ingredients are all there for a vastly improved defence. Petr Cech enjoyed a much quieter match as a result of the improved play in front of him, and was still ready when called upon to preserve the clean sheet. Who knew that playing players in their preferred roles and your 3 most suitable veteran defenders at the back could help?
Arsenal are now trending in the right direction, but it will be up to the players to ensure that the results against Liverpool and Stoke were anomalies and not indicative of the season to come. The squad will likely be rotated entirely for Thursday night’s Europa league match, but we should see a very similar starting XI against Chelsea on Sunday as was present at the Emirates to face Bournemouth.
The charge up the table has begun.